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Confidence Is Not the Solution To Gender Inequality

My latest piece in the Daily Dot discusses research on the double bind that women have to navigate in the workplace, and why I’m so fed up with all the demands that women Just Be Confident and Ask For What You Want at work:

Women face a classic double bind: if they confirm female stereotypes of gentleness, communality, and physical attractiveness, they are liked more but presumed less competent. If they disconfirm female stereotypes and act confident and assertive, they are liked less and presumed to have poor social skills. Both being liked and being considered competent is vital for getting hired, retained, and promoted.

These effects are especially pronounced in domains that are considered traditionally “male,” which would include most of the types of fields that everyone’s always wringing their hands about female underrepresentation in: law, business, politics, science, and technology, to name a few.

Another study suggests that interviewers evaluating women who behave in a more stereotypically masculine way emphasize social skills more than competence in their hiring decisions, but when they interview men (or women who are more stereotypically feminine), their hiring decisions hinge more on competence and social skills.

Since we already know that women who are more confident and less feminine are perceived to be lower on social skills, this seems like a convenient way to penalize them in hiring decisions.

In a study published in Research and Organizational Behavior, researchers Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan described the multiple ways in which women who act contrary to female stereotypes face backlash in the workplace.

For example, women are constantly being exhorted to self-promote so that supervisors and managers notice their skills. However, while women who self-promote may be considered more competent, they are alsoconsidered less likeable and are less likely to be hired. In another study, men who used an “assertive style” in their job application materials weremore likely to be hired than women using an identical strategy, and the actual job applications were identical except for the fictional applicant’s gender.

Once hired, women continue to face this double bind over and over again.

Read the rest here.

For the record, I did not choose the headline or the header image, and I apologize if either is offensive.

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Comments

  1. says

    That was a good article.

    Growing up, I was pretty shy and quiet, but I was taught to be confident, assertive, and to take initiative. These days I recognize it for what it was: male socialization. But even though those values were forced upon me because of my gender, confidence and assertiveness just seem like useful skills to me. So I was inclined to think that girls could use some of the same values. But as your article shows, teaching girls confidence won’t do them much good if women are perceived to have poor social skills whenever they act confidently!

    • says

      I think teaching confidence is extremely important because it’s useful in many situations; it’s just not the panacea that these people think it is. For instance, confidence helps immeasurably with clear communication about sex and relationships, and it helps people escape abusive situations. There are situations when it doesn’t matter if the person thinks you’re a bitch or whatever, because your goal isn’t necessarily to be liked and to succeed socially.

      • says

        Here I was just thinking about how confidence and initiative were useful in leadership and community organizing, but your examples are better.

  2. says

    Confidence is way overrated, period. It’s a doubly stupid thing to demand from women in these contexts – which is actually an exercise in excuse management. They may as well just say “because reasons!”

  3. says

    Currently I feel that I will only ever progress to a certain level within my employment and that the level has more to do with my gender than my skill set!

  4. blondeintokyo says

    I can vouch for the truth of this. My older, over-50′s male co-worker and I (40 yr old female) had the same complaint about a new policy that was implemented in our workplace. We discussed how to broach the subject with our manager, and we each had a meeting with him. The manager is also an over-50′s male, and though my co-worker and I both said the same thing and made the same suggestions, we both got very different reactions.

    When he had his meeting, the manager was respectful and listened, acknowledged the problem and promised to change the policy. A week later when I had my meeting with the manager, he was contemptuous and didn’t even let me finish what I was saying. But since I am not easily intimidated, I didn’t let his interruptions stop me from finishing. In turn, he accused *me* of interrupting *him*, and we wound up having a long, drawn out rather hostile discussion about the policy wherein he defended it. It wasn’t until he was satisfied that he had “put me in my place” that he angrily informed me that he had already decided to change the policy and thus my complaint was irrelevant.

    Why is it that when my older, male co-worker made a complaint, he was listened to and promised change, while the manager became angry with me and didn’t bother informing me of the policy change until *after* I we had a long drawn out and hostile discussion about it?

    Another time I found out that my wages had been illegally cut, and requested a meeting with the owner. (This was a very small company and the owner was in charge of pretty much all aspects of running the business). During the meeting, I assertively pointed out that what he had done violated labor law, and I requested he reinstate my former wage and pay back what he had cut out for the past two paychecks. At first, he didn’t want to comply, but I held my ground and told him that if he refused I would call the labor board, which of course would make a lot of trouble for him. He finally gave in and handed me the cash then and there. :)

    The interesting part came when I left the meeting room and a male co-worker told me he had been listening in to our negotiations. He looked at me with something like amazement, and said, “You are a real ball-buster.” I was completely taken aback, and asked him what he would have done in my place. Would he have allowed the wage skimming to continue and say nothing? Of course not, he said.

    Why is it that when I assertively stand up for myself, I’m a “ball buster”, but when a man stands up for himself, it’s just the normal thing to do?

    As I’m a naturally assertive and confident person, I’ve run into situations like this my entire life. But I have to say that I value my confidence and definitely think of it as more of a help than a hindrance. I’m one of the only women in my department, and I have managed to get respect from people who normally don’t respect the other female employees. Confidence is NOT “overrated” and I do think we should do all we can to instill it in young women, and prepare them for the backlash they will likely receive, so that they can see it for what it is: sexism. Then they can dismiss that backlash and continue being their awesome selves.

  5. Kay says

    So I agree with a lot of the things in this article, especially as a woman going into a male-dominated, scientific field (I’m in college right now). However, I still find articles and books teaching women how to navigate the double-standard useful. I *do* modify my personal behavior to get ahead, and read a lot of articles like those you cite in this article, and the one your article is going against (I didn’t read their book but just the article in the Atlantic).

    Because while I do advocate for systemic change, and believe it is the only real solution, I still have to navigate the sexism and double standards that exist today. I have to learn how to talk and present myself to get as far ahead as I can (which, to be frank, bloody sucks, as a queer butch girl). I’m not going to sit here waiting for change to happen. I’m advocating for change in the workplace, damn right, but I’m also trying to change myself so that I’m penalized as little as I can be for being a woman. Because there are things that I can change that will help me personally, despite the fact that they come from a sexist double standard, this is the society I live in and have to learn to operate in.

    In short, I still think there’s a place for these sorts of books, right alongside the activism working to make them obsolete. The article about the Confidence Code from the Atlantic seemed to acknowledge that the need for their advice stemmed from a double-standard (or maybe I just read that into it), but there are women in the workplace right now (and soon to be in it) who want this information to improve their personal lives, because the change we need isn’t going to happen right away.

    Let me know, by the way, if I misunderstood your article, but it seemed to me that you are against books like The Confidence Code and Lean In (neither of which I have read, but I have read many similar self-help articles teaching women how to act within the system that I’ve found useful).

    • says

      Let me know, by the way, if I misunderstood your article, but it seemed to me that you are against books like The Confidence Code and Lean In

      I’m definitely not “against” them and I’ve found that it worsens my writing when I pepper it with caveats like “but I’m not saying that it should never have been written” and “but it’s not entirely bad.” I’m not “against” any books besides those that are inaccurate and/or unnecessarily hurtful.

      However, it seemed to me from the description of the book and from all the others like it that this is being advocated as a solution for women’s underrepresentation in certain fields or positions. It is not. It’s a self-help book for individual women, like you, and it provides palliative solutions to systemic problems. Of course you should take advantage of these solutions if you find them helpful. But this is not social change. And yet this is what gets the bulk of the attention, while the sort of writing that analyzes structures and advocates for their improvement rarely ends up on the NYT bestseller list.